A Classic Clash of Values in Seattle


The protests and riots in Seattle last week during the World Trade Organization summit jolted many Americans. Photo images of black-clad and helmeted police lobbing tear gas at rioters in the center of an American city clashed with the rosy nostrums of economic prosperity endlessly repeated by our political and business leaders.

Aren’t we all supposed to be celebrating affluence, peace and technology at the end of the millennium? The protesters showed us that not everyone is quite so content.

The regrettable violence and vandalism perpetrated by a handful of those in the streets obscured the real issues the peaceful protesters sought to raise. And the news media has in large part been of little help in clarifying what’s at stake.


Pundits mused over their surprise that any Americans cared about the WTO and its agenda, or had even heard about the world trade body. They shouldn’t have been surprised, but most elite opinion-makers in the U.S. don’t go to union hall meetings, church basement gatherings or the living room discussions of concerned citizens.

A myth rampant in the press is that the WTO’s business is about obscure and arcane details of world trade, a boring subject usually reserved for economists, government ministers and academics.

But in fact, the protesters are astonishingly sophisticated in their understanding of the most important issues facing the world’s population. This sophistication has come, almost miraculously, not from academic research or ivory tower contemplation but from street-level experience and democratic discussions across this country.

The “new economy” of digital information technologies is caught up in the controversy surrounding the WTO, obviously. In fact, there is, by now, no other economy than the global system being reshaped by computers and the Internet. That’s part of the problem the peaceful protesters were talking about.

For partisan advocates of the new digital economy, there is a utopian promise unfolding around the world. The Internet promotes, they say, an unprecedented level playing field that can be exploited by people with intelligence and skill, without regard to economic background, race, religion, ethnicity, geographic location or gender. This leads to a new meritocracy based on individual value and contribution, a historic improvement over previous ways of acquiring status and wealth such as title, birth or inheritance.

The efficiencies fostered in the economy by new forms of production, global integration, the “friction free” character of e-commerce and other techniques will lead to cheaper goods, falling prices, a greater distribution of wealth and a corresponding decline in the desperation that has produced wars and other conflicts in the past. This is the optimistic picture painted in a book released a few weeks ago, “The Long Boom,” by Peter Schwartz, Peter Leyden and Joel Hyatt (Perseus Books), which argues that the digital economy will escape the boom-and-bust cycles of industrial production.


Most important, say the “comp-utopians,” the Internet and personal computers free individuals from being simply tools of government, corporations or other large institutions. The Internet fosters freedom of thought and expression, individual confidence in forging personal autonomy, and the economic means to live an individualized life free of coerced conformity.

For all these reasons, they say, the information age is the dawn of a new era in human potential. And anyone presenting obstacles to this new potential--such as trade unions, foot-dragging politicians, Luddites and other doubters--need to be, and will be, swept away.

The comp-utopians, say their critics, are blind to the realities of contemporary economic relations and the true nature of the digital revolution.

The critics, including the protesters in Seattle, point out that the “new economy” is demonstrably worsening inequality, threatening to develop a surveillance society, inexorably expanding the power of large corporations and crushing all forms of cultural diversity and authenticity. Instead of the utopia of individual freedom, they say, we’re seeing a “Disney-fication” of the world, a radical transformation of the Internet from a medium of communications to something that looks like the worst shopping mall, and a bland, corporate entertainment culture that anesthetizes people into debased, insatiable consumerism.

Furthermore, say the critics, the foundational premise of the WTO and other advocates of globalization is unending economic growth and consumption, with the single and unchallengeable model of the United States as the paradigm that should be emulated around the world. This points to environmental suicide. It’s unthinkable that the billions of people we expect to greet in the next century should all be encouraged to strive for the American dream of a suburban house, a car and everything that Wal-Mart or Sears sells. Under that model, the human race would devour the Earth very rapidly, as we seem to be doing already.

The prospect that every person on Earth should be turned into a clone of the average American middle-class consumer is terrifying and abhorrent to many people who treasure the diversity of human culture, which is rapidly eroding.


When the promises of abundance and the easy consumer life are combined with the realities of environmental constraints and deepening income inequality, the critics say, we are setting ourselves up for huge future conflicts, not sustainable world peace.

One op-ed columnist began a piece last week with the question and answer: “Is there anything more ridiculous in the news today than the protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle? I doubt it.”

The question should have been, “Is there anything more serious in the news today than the protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle?” I doubt it. What happened in Seattle was the most important confrontation of values we’ve seen in a long time, and one that will last well into the next millennium.


Gary Chapman is director of the 21st Century Project at the University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at